Some time ago, I talked to some students from Designlab about design challenges and potential interview questions for the last few minutes of a group critique. In my opinion, it’s important to know stuff like this, especially if it’s a present for Future You, because then you can have a better understanding of what you’re learning and why you’re learning stuff in your curriculum. (And I really do hope to continue to see a rise in participation for those crits after sharing these!)
As usual, this details my own experiences, so results may vary.
This article is two-fold: the in-person practice with students from Designlab, and my own experience with a super-fast design challenge (it was only 30 minutes since we had ran over my case study talk) and how I approached it. There are also resources that I utilized at the bottom of the article. Let’s get to it!
In-Person Practice = Improvement
I invited bay area folks in Designlab to come together and try out a design challenge. I had eight people join, which meant that I wouldn’t be able to grill people the way I had gotten grilled during my interview. However, I wanted to make sure that people had a taste of what might be coming when they got to that interview stage; as such, I improvised.
Instead of a 1:1 session, I paired everyone off and gave them a prompt: create a data management system for the head coach of a soccer team. (Okay, it wasn’t that clear-cut when I actually said it, but that is essentially what the prompt was.)
Since we only had an hour, I staged the exercise as a pair project. Everyone had 15 minutes to talk with their partners about how they would approach the problem. I walked around the room to answer any questions that they might want to ask an interviewer; things like, “How is that data coming in?” (I said that it’s a robot that takes hundreds of pictures a second, and that information gets stored as raw video footage.). After the 15 minutes were up, it was clear that everyone was a little rattled at how quickly time went by, but I had everyone present what they had.
A quarter of an hour is not a lot of time. But in that time, everyone was able to at least come up with one or more of the following:
- a research plan
- interview questions they’d want to ask
- an assumed business goal (remember, the whole thing is hypothetical, and you don’t have a lot of time, so as long as you stick to your assumption, keep trucking along)
- attempts at defining the problem with “how might we’s”, user goals, etc.
- future planning — other things they’d need to look into, but couldn’t in the assumed time allotted (I think I said they had an imaginary 2 weeks)
That’s a huge amount of progress. And that’s just the stuff they wrote down in the 15 minutes. It seems like most places will give you about 10–15 minutes on your own to jot down some notes and ideas, and then the rest of the hour is dedicated to how you present your design process.
Remember…the goal of the design challenge is to understand your thought process. In small part, it may also be how you work with the interviewer (because you may very well be working on the same team). You’re not expected to come up with a solution.
The 30-Minute Design Challenge: My Shaky Process
Observation: Design challenges are wacky
Seriously, they are wacky af, and even though I’d read about them and prior to the actual exercise, it was probably one of the weirdest things I’d ever done. My task was to pull two pieces of paper from two separate cups…and the words would seal my destiny. Sort of. My task was to design a clock radio for teenagers, and that was because I’d drawn “clock radio” from one cup and “teenagers” from the other. I mean, WHAT?? (By the way, you can take a look at some of these, sans cups, here: https://designercize.com/)
What was going through my head at the time
“…I feel like I should have seen this coming,” I’d thought to myself. I had to fight the feeling of freezing to my seat and freaking out, which was no simple task. So I did one of the things I’m very comfortable with doing: I gave a bit of an incredulous look, decided, “Okay, this is my life now”, and trusted that I would give it my best shot.
So, in a list:
- PREP: Do your homework! It was insanely beneficial for me to read through articles, especially this one. Tiffany Eaton basically saved my life on several occasions, and the tips she’d learned from her onsite interviews made the experience much more bearable. One might even say I was as ready as I could possibly be for it.
- ANXIETY: They gave me about 5 minutes to let the prompt sink in. Usually you’d get more, but interview was running over (and remember, I’ve been working here for almost five years, so I pretty much knew everyone and that made it even less scary). During this time, I was allowed to jot things down on post-its or the whiteboard or whatever I wanted.
- PANIC: “Could we see what you were writing?” After giving them a deer-in-the-headlights sort of look, this is what they asked. I did indeed write some things down and it was questions on how to tackle the project, which is to say, the same way I’d tackle any project: research. I’d written down questions about who the audience might be, and why a certain set of teenagers would want a clock radio, of all things.
- MUST. COMMUNICATE. That article I shared up there said to be sure to talk aloud. This is because interviewers, surprisingly, cannot read minds. Even if you know you’re not quite there yet, you can let them know, “Okay, I’m riffing off of something now, so this is an incomplete thought, but here is what I’ve got so far…” and that should be totally fine.
- BRAIN FREEZE: There was a point where I blanked out completely. I was talking about research and I was going in circles because I couldn’t figure out where my generative research would end. At this point, I stopped myself. I took a breath. I asked them if it was cool if I could spin my chair around and not face them for a sec so I could think. This was okay, if not awkward, but it helped me clear my head so I could get back on track. And then I went back into it.
- GRATITUDE: Know when they’re throwing you a bone. Which they did very artfully, because they didn’t want to ask leading questions, because again, the whole point is to figure out what questions I was going to ask. Listen to what they’re saying, because they may be trying to nudge you back on track, and that is a blessing right there.
Some of My Mistakes
Usually I’d say, “Oh, I had many,” but I wouldn’t call them mistakes. Getting out of the headspace that things were wrong was imperative. Design isn’t wrong, per se, it just hasn’t been iterated to what would be considered right…at the time. And because I asked for feedback after the fact, I can say that I actually did pretty well for a junior (because they said so).
What you say in your exercise will be different, of course, but I can say that I followed the structure taught to me in UXA: empathize, define, ideate, prototype, test. Iterate by rinsing and repeating. I applied it to that crazy clock radio, and I did well for about…say, 65–70% of it. Here’s two things I would have changed if I could go back in time and do it over.
- I spent too much time arguing that perhaps a clock radio wouldn’t be the right choice. Look, they know that. You know that. That’s not the point of the exercise. I kept saying stuff like, “But wouldn’t they just use their phones?” Which is, you know, true. They spent time skillfully moving me away from the phone thing and back to actually creating the clock radio, because the point is to understand your design process when you’re not designing for an app or a website (which is what pretty much everyone in UX bootcamps are trained to do, amirite??).
- I forgot to mention the business goals until much later. I was still of the mindset that NO TEENAGER WOULD CARE ABOUT A CLOCK RADIO EVER, which immediately imprinted the thought that this nonsense would never ever sell ever, which is decidedly not the attitude to take with this exercise. Eventually, when they dropped the hint, I cursed to myself and then was able to get out of that box. Come on, Robbin. Target and Bed, Bath and Beyond sell this stuff ALL THE TIME. Surely you can use that as competitive research! Ah, of course. It’s not like the world has stopped making clock radios. Yet.
- I didn’t make use of the whiteboard. I could have used that to sort out my thoughts a little more so I could tell what I already talked about and why. (Also, thinking on the spot is hard.)
My advice: practice, practice, practice. Find and meet designers out in the real world. Get more than one mentor. Ask your mentor for design challenge help, and then ask them what went well and what you could work on for next time. If you get to that interview stage and you feel like you messed up on the design challenge, don’t be afraid of asking them for input. The worst they could say is “no”, and information you can glean from the experience is a treasure.
Last but not least, some resources. Again, the stuff I’m detailing here is the design challenge for Udemy. You may have a different challenge, so doing research will serve you well. Prepare yourself for anything.
- (Article) A Concise Guide to Onsite Design Challenges by Tiffany Eaton
- (Article) The Ninja Skill for UX Designers by Molly Inglish
- (Article) The Design Interview Exercise by Peter Berrecloth — a more meta look into the actual practice; i.e., how to spot a bogus design challenge
- (Article) 5 Steps to Master the Whiteboard Design Challenge by Zhenshuo Fang — I used this to frame the in-person practice
- (Book for Purchase) Solving Product Design Exercises by Artiom Dashhinsky — useful, but becomes repetitive after you go through a few; might want to consider splitting the cost with someone?
- (Practice Tool) Designercize by Mezzotent